‘Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans,’ John Lennon
Written in August 2012.
We live in BC Canada and our son, Terry and his wife, lived in Philadelphia. We had plans to meet them in Ireland in September, 2010. On August 21, 2010 at about 12:30 p.m. Eastern Time life happened when our son, our beautiful boy ended his own life. In doing this he shattered our plans, my heart, my sense of security and my life changed forever. It was and still is unfathomable and I have struggled to come to terms with his irrevocable act.
We all lose loved ones eventually, it is part of life. Losing a child is one of the most heart wrenching losses anyone can endure. Sadly, I have met many people who have lost children. I have learned you don’t ever ‘get over it,’ you come to terms with it. My 93 year old aunt recently wept as she remembered the baby she lost in May, 1949. The aftermath of suicide is overwhelming and it adds layers of emotional anguish, that are, I think, different from any other loss.
The day after Terry died I spoke to a friend who told me that she had attempted suicide several years ago. She said she had been very depressed and had entered what she called a ‘suicidal coma.’ This is a place where she was so consumed by her pain and depression that she could no longer feel her love for others or theirs for her. It seemed clear to her the only way to stop the pain was to die. Fortunately she survived and eventually she realized she did not want to die, she wanted the pain to stop. She said I would have to come terms with the fact that I will never understand why, that to this day, she does not really understand why she did it. She said a ‘suicidal coma’ comes from an irrational state of mind that you can’t understand from a rational one. This conversation was very important and profound for me. It was my first step in beginning to come to terms with what happened.
We now know that Terry had been depressed for some time. Like many others he was a master at concealing it and we had no idea, although in retrospect there were signals. His wife and closest friends knew and tried to get him to go for help but he refused, not an uncommon occurrence. Eventually he entered his own ‘suicidal coma’ where he felt the only out of his pain was to take his life.
Terry left a note addressed to his wife, his family and a dear friend who is a social worker. To her he wrote, ‘you could not help me because I would not let you, I am so sorry.’ I believe he did not feel worthy of help and that breaks my heart even more. I now believe he may have been bipolar.
The first months after Terry died are a blur of shock, disbelief, numbness and anguish. As the fog dissipated, reality began to dawn and the real grieving began. I have learned that overwhelming grief is exhausting, miserable, crushing, unnerving, discombobulating, and extremely hard work. It takes a long time. It will never be okay, I will never ‘get over it’, but I will be okay. Earl Grollman wrote, ‘grief is not a disorder, a disease or a sign of weakness. It is an emotional, physical and spiritual necessity, the price you pay for love.’
Over the last 2 years the pain has become less acute and slowly (very slowly) life has started to have meaning again. Initially it was one minute at a time, then an hour, a day. The pain is not quite as sharp now, the burden of grief is not so heavy. Still I find myself falling into grief pits and I must allow them to run their course. At times it is still exhausting, confusing, and consuming. There is no timetable or map. It just is.
Last year around the 10th anniversary of September 11th I heard someone talking about the people that jumped from the twin towers. It occurred to me that they felt suicide was better than being trapped and maybe dying in a burning building. Perhaps to Terry his life seemed like a burning building and suicide was his only escape.
The will to live is a primary imperative of all living things yet suicide is the 2nd cause of death for males under 40 and the 8th cause of death overall. Suicide occurs across all age, economic, social and ethnic boundaries. About 90% of suicides happen as the result of some sort of mental illness. There are many forms and types of mental illness (MI). It can be temporary or permanent; genetic or situational; chronic or acute. Even when there is a diagnosis and treatment is available, mental illness can be difficult to manage and treat and impossible to cure. Sometimes MI is fatal. Psychiatrist John T. Maltsberger wrote, ‘there is no suffering greater than that which drives people to suicide; suicide defines the moment in which mental pain exceeds the human capacity to bear it. It represents the abandonment of hope.’ It hurts to think the pain Terry must have suffered.
Remember when we called cancer the Big C, when unwed pregnancies, domestic violence and homosexuality were not discussed. Many people are uncomfortable hearing or talking about suicide (and mental illness) and there is still stigma and misunderstanding. I believe this must change. We need to be more compassionate, kind and understanding.
Here are some facts. From Wikipedia: The majority of gun-related deaths in the United States ARE SUICIDES, with 17,352 (55.6%) of the total 31,224 firearm-related deaths in 2007 due to suicide, while 12,632 (40.5%) were homicide deaths. The World Health Organization estimates that every year, almost a million people die from suicide, one every 40 seconds. It also estimates that for every suicide, there are up to 200 attempted ones. A recent scientific study stated the British economic recession, rising unemployment and biting austerity measures may have driven more than 1,000 people in England to commit suicide since 2007. Suicide rates in Europe have increased as well since 2007.
From the Health Canada website: Twenty percent of Canadians will personally experience a mental illness every year. Mental illness, by definition, has a serious impact on a person’s ability to function effectively over a long period of time.
A while ago I learned about a mural planned in Philadelphia to help raise awareness about suicide. I got in touch with the artist and he agreed to include Terry’s image on the mural (he used the photo above). It is complete but I don’t have any close up photos of it yet. Here is a link to the website. I am pleased that his image is part of this project. http://muralarts.org/findingthelight.
Shortly after Terry died I joined an online support group called Parents of Suicide (PoS). It has been a lifeline for me and many other parents in the same situation. Sometimes it seems they are the only people who truly understand – probably they are.
PoS is mostly an email exchange group. In every email there is a list of birth dates and memorial dates of children of our members for that month. I usually pause and read the names for that day. Last year I could not look at the August list because I could not bear to see Terence S not once but twice. I would skip over it as quickly as possible and avoid looking at the screen. It was too painful. Last August was just too painful.
It is August again (can it be 2 years already?) and there is that list again. This year each time I see it I stop and read his name, August 21, Terence S (memorial) and August 28 Terence S (birth date). It is still very painful but I guess this is progress.
A copy of the August PoS list is below. Each name represents a human being who took his or her life in a moment of depression, despair, anger, irrationality, or whatever prompted them. Each one represents people who were impacted by that person’s sudden and most often unexpected death. People who are struggling to come to terms with the unthinkable. Some parents have lost children younger than 12 and some more than one child. Imagine!
What can you do? If you speak to someone who has lost a loved one to suicide don’t hesitate to talk about them. If you know someone who seems to be struggling with anxiety or depression, take time to listen to them. If someone you know mentions suicide, talk to them about it. Talking about suicide does not cause someone to become suicidal or increase the risk. Showing genuine concern by asking about suicide directly can be part of an immediate intervention. When you speak with me do not hesitate to mention Terry. He was a wonderful boy and young man. I need to feel he is not forgotten. Don’t be afraid to speak about how he died and how he lived. My hope is that by talking about Terry’s life and his death, maybe another life can be saved.
Elizabeth Edwards who lost her 16 year old son in a car accident said, ‘If you know someone who has lost a child, and you’re afraid to mention them because you think you might make them sad by reminding them that they died, they didn’t forget they died. What you’re reminding them of is that you remember that they lived, and that’s a great, great gift.’
Thank you for reading this.
With love and peace
Barbara, Terry’s mum
Aug 28/80 – Aug 21/10,
Your light went out too soon!
~ PoS AUGUST REMEMBRANCE LIST ~
B~ RICHARD SAugust 2
B~ PANAYIOTIS P
M~ POLLYANA B
M~ JOSHUA F
M~ RICHARD CAugust 3
B~ DOUGLAS K
M~ CASSANDRA C
B~ ROBERT C
M~ DARRYL L
M~ BRANDON TAugust 11
B~ DAYNA K
B~ WADE S
M~ CORY C
M~ JACE S
M~ CHLOE PAugust 12
B~ PETER H
M~ ANDREW S
M~ DAVID D
M~ MICHAEL H
M~ CORY JAugust 21
B~ AFONSO R
M~ JODINE R
M~ JOSEPH F
M~ TERENCE S
B~ JEREMY H
B~ CHERIE P
M~ KEVIN M
M~ CHRIS HAugust 28
B~ TERENCE S
M~ RICHARD K
M~ RICHARD J
M~ GARY W
M~ JACOB MAugust 29
B~ NICHOLAS C
B~ FELISHA S
B~ MARK F
B~ JACK S
To put some faces to the statistics please go to: www.facesofsuicide.com
I wish it were not so but go to search and type in Terry Swanston & you will see my sweet boy